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Scrambled labels

25th January 2005

Despite a tightening of the labelling rules last year, the labels on egg boxes can still leave consumers befuddled. We went shopping and found half-a-dozen, er... eggsamples.

EggsWoodland Organic

Nice-looking eggs if you want to pay a premium price. But wait a minute. How big are they? There is no size mark on this pack, only tiny print saying that the minimum weight is 328g.

Got a calculator with you? Then you can work out that the egg size averages a minimum of 54.7g. Got your reference table for egg sizes with you? Then you can see at a glance that this is at the smaller end of the ‘Medium’ category. Eggs-asperating!

EggsWoodland Free Range

Woodland again, and nothing specifically misleading about the packaging, except that the brand name Woodland could imply a small independent producer dedicated to free range and organic eggs reared in pretty forests. In fact Woodland is a brand of Deans Farms, once owned by the multinational Dalgety but now a dedicated egg production company. It is the largest egg producer in Britain, with interests in feed milling, distribution and ‘hen processing’.

The Woodland brand is part of a deal between Deans and the Woodland Trust. Deans gets the eco-friendly brand name and the charity link-up on the pack in return for 1p given to the Trust for each box sold. Cheep cheep at the price!

EggsOld Cotswold Legbar

Like the Woodland Organic eggs, there is no size marking on this pack. The tiny print, at the back of the box (so you have already taken it off the shelf, see) says 300g minimum. That’s 50g per egg minimum, or Small.

The box also boasts that the hens are ‘fed on a natural vegetarian cereal diet’. Well, actually guys, hens are not by nature vegetarian. Originating from Red Jungle Fowl, they love to munch on grubs, worms and insects to supplement a diet of seeds, berries and grit. They need animal-based foods to get the full range of nutrients, so an all-vegetarian cereal diet may not give them what they need.

Eggs18 eggs from Iceland

Again the problem of no size indication. We get told that the 18 eggs will weigh an average of 964g, which means of course that these eggs are …er…

The answer is that these eggs are a mix of smallish medium and mediumish small eggs which the company can’t be bothered to sort.

Oh – but where on the pack does it say how the eggs were produced? It doesn’t. But if you look on the eggs themselves it says code 3. Which, as an egg-head might be able to tell you, means battery cages.

Eggs10 Very Large Fresh Eggs

The word ‘Fresh’ is a complete red herring as all eggs should be fresh if they are to be fit for sale. The best before date is just the same as the other eggs on display.

And notice that you are not getting 12 eggs but ten, in a box that could easily look like a regular one-dozen pack.

These were produced by Bird Bros at the delightfully named Sunny Farm. The box gives no indication of how the eggs were produced, so it’s a fair bet that the hens which laid these eggs didn’t see much sunshine down at Sunny Farm.

EggsColumbus eggs

We will not grouse (oops) about the health claims, although one of these eggs would provide little more omega-3 than would the vegetable oil you might fry it in. But we will grouse about the lack of pack labelling telling us about the size and the production methods.

The size isn’t given, only (once again) the minimum pack weight (328g this time). So calculators out and … the eggs are at the small end of Medium.

The production method? Nothing at all. But take out an egg, read the encoded stamp, and it turns out that these eggs are from common-but-certainly-not-garden battery-kept birds.

EggsDuck Eggs

Fancy a change of taste with these duck eggs? The pack tells us they are free range, which is nice. But the pack says nothing about size nor about weight.

So we open up the pack to see what it says stamped on the eggs and the answer is… nothing at all. No codes, no little lions, nothing. And no provenance either. On the pack we are only given the helpful information that they were produced for ...guess who? Yes, Deans, the country’s largest egg company. Down-right quackery?

Shelling out

By law, all EU produced eggs should be stamped on their shells with a code to indicate their provenance. Apart from other codes and logos, there must be a string of numbers and letters that look something like this: 3UK123c

The first number indicates the stocking conditions, based on the code shown below. In this example these would be eggs from caged hens.

0 = organic
1 = free range
2 = barn eggs
3 = cage eggs

This initial code is followed by the country, such as UK, and the farm’s identity number (in this example a fictitious 123c).

Getting fresh

Dates on egg boxes should tell you how old the eggs are. The maximum ‘best before’ date is 28 days after laying. Eggs must be sold (‘delivered to the consumer’) no more than 21 days after laying.

Good practice – operated by the better supermarkets – cuts both these dates by a week so that the best before date is 21 days after laying, and the ‘sell by’ or ‘display until’ date is 14 days after laying.

Lion Quality MarkLion quality?

The Lion Quality mark can be found on the priciest organic eggs as well as the cheapest eggs produced by intensively farmed, battery caged hens.

As such, the Lion Quality mark gives little indication of welfare issues, although it does indicate that the laying hens have been vaccinated against Salmonella Enteritidus and should guarantee that the eggs are traceable back to the farm at which they were produced.

A best before date should also be stamped on every egg bearing the Lion Quality mark, although these dates are not always easy to read.

Eggs which do not carry the Lion Quality mark may have been imported from countries which do not meet basic UK and EU health and safety legislation. Such eggs tend to be used in commercial outlets such as restaurants and canteens, rather than sold directly to consumers.

eggsClass A, class B and industrial eggs

When buying eggs as a consumer you should only ever come across Class A eggs, which must be naturally clean, fresh eggs with intact shells and an air sac not exceeding 6mm in depth. The yolk must not move away from the centre of the egg on rotation. Such eggs are usually sorted by machine, and those that fail to make the grade are designated as Grade B eggs which are ‘broken out’ and pasteurised for use by the food industry.

In addition, there is another class of eggs called industrial eggs which are for non-food use only. These are largely used in cosmetic products such as shampoo and soap.